Mozambique is a popular destination for the December/January holidays, in particular with South Africans. Most vacationers head for the beaches, but increasingly we are seeing an influx of tourists in Maputo. Rico and I were commenting the other day that the city is positively packed with people, there is crazy traffic all over the place, and all the shops are full. This is in stark contrast to 2006, when Maputo seemed as if it had been deserted in the days before Christmas.
Anyhow, as this is our first time to pass both Christmas and New Year's in Maputo, here are a few tips we've picked up that may make your holiday a bit easier.
1. Draw cash from ATM's as early as possible. There seems to be a total lack of planning on the part of the local banks to ensure there is cash in their ATM's during the holiday season. Many of the systems are also overloaded with so many users trying to draw down cash, and we've seen multiple ATM's out of service.
Rico and I spent 3 HOURS this morning driving all around town to find an ATM that was a) working, and b) had sufficient cash. We stopped at about 6 different places before heading to the airport, and even there we had to wait in line for about 20 minutes. We will never again let our cash get so low that we are forced to withdraw on Christmas Eve!
If you are flying into Maputo, get your cash at the airport ATM's before driving into the city. Otherwise, we found the best bet was the Standard Bank ATM on the corner of Av. Kenneth Kaunda with Rua de França, just next to the World Bank. The Standard Bank ATM on Av. Julius Nyerere just across from Mundo's usually has funds, but the lines are miles long.
2. Plan for traffic jams. Maputo has it's problem spots for traffic during normal times of the year, but during the holidays it is a completely different story. There are traffic jams all around the city, drivers are crazier than usual, and many cars break down while in traffic due to their poor state of maintenance coupled with the excessive heat. Get errands done early in the day. If you are sightseeing, plan on going places where you can walk, or take a good taxi who can try to find alternate routes around the traffic jams.
3. Be aware that many shops and restaurants close for the holidays. In fact, it can sometimes be difficult to find places open between Christmas and New Year's, and it is not at all uncommon for establishments to close December 22nd or so, and only reopen around January 5th.
Do your grocery shopping early so that you can stock up on essentials. Several supermarkets stay open up to the holidays, but they are an absolute nightmare to shop in if you need something at the last minute. Also, don't count on eating at any old restaurant if you don't feel like cooking at home. Mundo's, one of Maputo's most popular restaurants, always shuts down at the end of the year. Costa do Sol seems to be open - we went there yesterday for some prawns - but I'm not sure about Christmas Day/New Year's.
If you are looking to eat out on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, be prepared to end up at an expensive, fixed-price hotel meal, though even that isn't guaranteed (Girassol's restaurant is closed Christmas Eve, for example). The best options for holiday meal/party packages are: Hotels (Southern Sun, Terminus, Polana, Cardoso), or even some of the yacht clubs (Clube Naval, Clube Marítimo) or residential condos (Kaya Kwanga). Reservations are a must, so call ahead to be sure you get a table!
4. Be prepared for serious heat. The weather this time of year is extremely hot and humid. Average temperatures are around 32-36 C, though it's not uncommon for it to go above 40 on a particularly hot day. Humidity makes the already high temperatures feel even more uncomfortable. Be sure to bring/wear loose-fitting clothes made of natural fibers. Linen and cotton are the best options. You will not want to wear anything tight-fitting, polyester or denim, no matter how cute it looks! Wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen if you are walking around or at the beach. Also be prepared for heavy tropical rains, as the hot temperatures provoke afternoon showers.
5. Don't get ripped off. Lots of tourists is a petty thief's dream. Be sure to keep your valuables safe, and only walk around with some spending money and whatever else is truly necessary. Wear a purse that crosses over your body if you must take one out. Keep small notes (20, 50, 100 meticais notes) separate from larger notes (200, 500, 1000) so that you don't have to pull out a wad of money if you want to buy a pack of cigarettes on the street or a cheap souvenir on the corner. Be aware of what is going on around you if you are walking, as well as if you are driving.
Also, be forewarned that artisans and souvenir sellers tend to hike their prices dramatically at the end of the year. You can safely assume that the first price you are quoted for a wooden carving or a t-shirt is easily double what the person actually expects to receive. Don't be reluctant about bargaining - it is expected, and definitely part of the game!
6. Make a local notarized copy of your passport and visa. It is required by law that everyone carry official ID and proof of legal status in Mozambique at all times. Usually this means carrying a passport with a valid visa, however this can be risky. Nobody wants to lose their original documents, much less while on holiday in a foreign country.
The solution? Take your passport to a Mozambican notary's office - there are several locations in Maputo, and at least one in each main city throughout the country. Get a notarized copy made of your passport ID page and your visa page (be sure your visa is valid). The way you say this in Portuguese is "cópia autenticada". It should cost less than 200 meticais. You can carry the notarized copies instead of your passport, and it is 100% legal. The police will still likely hassle you, but you are in total compliance with the law this way and can keep your original documents in the hotel safe or at home.
7. Look out for police trolling for bribes. This is always an issue in Mozambique, but it gets especially bad at the end of the year. Expect multiple police checkpoints along the highway and inside the city. To avoid hassles, make sure you have all of your documents in order - both your personal documents (driver's license, passport, etc.) as well as the car documents (import papers, registration papers, "livrete") - and the required car safety items for driving in Mozambique (safety triangle, etc.). Be aware of hidden traffic signs (for example, it is common in Maputo for a 'No U-Turn' sign to be on the opposite side of the street where you would expect it to be).
Everyone has their own personal opinion about how to handle bribe demands, but if you know you are 100% compliant with the law, it becomes much less of an issue. That's not to say that police won't try to intimidate you or hassle you regardless, but at least you know you are in the right. If you have committed an infraction, insisting on receiving a ticket ("multa") lessens the opportunity for corruption.
8. Beware of the craziness of Av. Marginal on Sundays and holidays. The Marginal is the street that runs alongside the ocean, and is a very popular spot for street parties on Sundays and holidays. Think lots of parked cars, blaring music, dancing, flirting, chatting and extreme levels of intoxication. Traffic crawls to a stop, and it can be impossible to get from Maputo through towards GAME or Costa do Sol, and just as difficult to go from a destination further out on the Marginal back to the city. Even if you don't mind the traffic jam, be aware that many of the drivers out there will be completely drunk. On New Year's and Christmas Eve, plan on things getting so crowded that you can't feasibly get through that area. If you are planning to party on one side of the city, and then want to cross to another area via the Marginal near Coconut's and the barracas, change your plans - it won't be possible!
9. Plan early for New Year's if you want to go to an organized party. Many of Maputo's residents get out of the city for the holidays - Ponta do Ouro is the most popular destination, as is Bilene. For those who want to spend the New Year in the city, there are basically two options: 1) street party along the Marginal, or 2) pay to participate in an organized meal/party at a hotel or club. Depending on what you are looking for, either of these options can be fun, but be sure to plan ahead if you want to do the organized party route as spaces fill very quickly. Expect to pay around US$80 - US$100 per person for the typical organized party at one of the hotels or yacht clubs. For this price, you usually get dinner, drinks and a bottle of champagne, and live music or a dj, but be sure to check in advance as each establishment offers a different package.
10. Have fun! Maputo is a fabulous city for a holiday, even though you may face several frustrations this time of the year. Go for some seafood at Costa do Sol. Take a walk down the beach along the Marginal. Visit the Núcleo de Arte or the National Art Museum. Have sundowners at Miramar or the bar at the Southern Sun hotel. Go for ice cream at Gelatti on Av. Julius Nyerere. Go for drinks and jazz music at the CFM train station bar. Enjoy a lazy afternoon at one of the many swimming pools in town (hotels and yacht clubs). Take a boat to Inhaca or Xefina Island. Take the ferry across to Catembe. Go to a movie at the historic Gil Vicente theater. Visit the many crafts sellers throughout the city. Eat lots of piri piri chicken....etc...